Know Your Pork: A Guide to Your Favorite Cuts
Fatty and succulent, pork belly has recently become highly sought after. This richly flavored cut of pork comes from the abdominal area of the pig. It offers a complex flavor and texture that is perfect for slow cooking. Pork belly can be prepared in a number of ways, including on the grill or on the stovetop, but one of the most popular ways to prepare it is braised and seared, rendering the belly crisp on the outside and perfectly tender within.
Ham who? The hock is the lower shank of the leg above the foot, basically the ankle area. With much more meat and fat than in the foot, the meat is tough with a lot of connective tissue. A ham hock is usually sold fully cooked, and gives a smoky flavor to soups, stews, and pots of long-simmered greens. Cut from the lower portion of the pig’s hind leg, the hock has lots of fat and bone, so it requires a longer cooking time to release flavor and tenderize.
The most tender, leanest and perhaps the highest demand pork meat of all, the tenderloin is the muscle that runs down either side of the pig’s backbone. Each pig has two loins, the tenderloin and the loin, making it pretty easy to confuse the two. But not all loins are created equal and definitely shouldn’t be substituted for each other. Loin and tenderloin actually look different and are not cut from the same part of the animal. Pork tenderloin is boneless, delicately flavored and should be cooked quickly on a grill, seared, roasted or stir fried. A good tip to remember before you start cooking is to trim off the shiny membrane. Also called the silver-skin, the skin is unpleasantly chewy and can quickly ruin your dish.
Not to be confused with the tenderloin, the pork loin is a large cut that runs along either side of the backbone, beginning just below the shoulder and continuing down to the leg. Pork loin can either be cooked in one piece with the bone, or deboned, stuffed and rolled up to make a perfectly juicy roast.
One of the most flavorful parts of the pig, pork shoulder is a complex combination of muscles, connective tissues and fat that extends from the spine to the elbow of the front leg. The shoulder cut (also called pork butt) is ideal for slow-cooked BBQ recipes, since it contains lots of juicy, marbled fat which melts and bastes the meat with all sorts of savory juices.
If you love a good bone-in roast, pork leg is a great option. Cooking meat on the bone will help to keep it moist as well as produce those rich juices that you can use for gravy. Very lean and more economical than the loin, a leg cut may be sold as a whole roast or a half, or it may be sectioned into three muscle cuts: the inside, outside and leg tip. Pork leg is usually sold whole, in halves or in smaller cuts, but cubes and strips are also available for kabobs, stir-frying or stewing.
That juicy ham that is devoured at the Christmas table every year is actually the pig’s thigh or rump. While some hams are sold fresh for baking, most store-bought hams are cured with brine, salt, and spices, making them juicier, and fully cooked. If you like your ham with a meatier, more intense flavor, opt for one that is smoked. Just beware of the “boneless” ham. Although easier to slice, most of the time boneless hams aren’t really whole hams at all. They’re pieces of ham jelled together and canned – yikes!
One of the most popular cuts of pork, the pork chop comes from the loin of the pig, which runs along the spine from just behind the shoulder all the way to the sirloin, just before the leg. There are three different types of pork chops, which are classified by their position on the loin.
The center cut, the most popular and tender chop, sits in the middle of the pork loin and is boneless. It contains meat from the center of the loin, perfect for pan-frying, grilling or broiling. Because this chop contains two parts of the loin that cook at different rates, overcooking can happen quickly.
Rib chops, which come from the rib section of the loin, have a bone running along one side and sometimes a layer of fat on the outside. The rib chop contains a large eye of lean loin meat and no tenderloin meat, making it a top choice for grilling.
The sirloin chop is an inexpensive cut from the hip area toward the back of the loin. It contains some hip and backbone, with a higher percentage of bone than other chops; the meat is composed of various muscle groups, making it chockful of pork flavor. However, because of its high muscle content, sirloin chops have a tendency to become tough.
Consider the sirloin the last stop on the pig meat train. If you follow the pig’s vertebrae down to the last one (where it stops being a backbone and starts being a tail) you’ve got the sirloin cut. Inexpensive yet flavorful, the sirloin usually comes in a roast form but can also be cut like pork chops.
If you’re craving a slab of fall-of-the-bone rack of ribs, it’s important to first learn the difference between your rib cuts.
Meaty and great for quick, high-heat cooking, baby backs (also known as loin ribs), are the most popular choice in restaurant-style ribs. These ribs come from the back of the pig, along the vertebrae. They have more meat and less connective tissue than spareribs do, which is good, but there is a drawback: Baby backs are relatively lean, so they can easily dry out if overcooked.
Located on the underside of the ribcage, spare ribs are bigger, tougher, and meatier than baby back ribs. The mix of meat and fat add to their tenderness and make slow cooking a great way to enjoy this cut.
Country-style ribs are kind of like the cubic zirconia of pork ribs – they look like ribs, they taste like ribs, but in fact, aren’t ribs at all. Country style ribs are trimmed from the shoulder end of a bone-in pork loin, and divided into equal portions to look like ribs. This budget-friendly cut of pork has little or no bone or membrane, and are great to experiment with because they are easy to cook and often less expensive than other ribs.